The Cost of Police Misconduct

Recently, a spotlight has been placed on police brutality. The ubiquity of cell phone cameras and re-energized civil rights movement have made national news out of incidents that previously may have barely received a local mention. It is much harder to ignore a problem when we are able to actually see it with our own eyes.

A huge part of this conversation has been about how we fix the problem. Increased training, demilitarizing police departments, rebuilding trust through community-based policing, oversight committees, increased transparency—all of these have been proposed as part of the answer.

One obstacle that I do not think has received enough attention is deterrence. How do we stop police officer's use of excessive force when they so rarely face real consequences for their actions? The civil courts in this country are supposed to serve as an answer to this problem. When you hurt someone, you can be sued for the damages you have caused. When a company makes a dangerous product, they can be sued when someone is hurt by it. When our own government, in the form of our police, hurt people, who pays? We do.

Because of a legal doctrine created by our courts called qualified immunity, officers themselves are almost always protected from any financial legal liability when they hurt people while working as police officers. This means when people successfully sue for the actions of police, it is the government itself that pays the damages. And they do so with our tax dollars.

The Marshall Project, a non-profit news organization that focuses on criminal justice issues, recently conducted a survey of the 50 American cities with the highest police to civilian ratios. They were only able to obtain records from 31 of these cities. In the last decade, those 31 cities have paid out three billion dollars to settle police misconduct lawsuits.

Pause to consider that number.

This means, on average, each of these cities has spent almost 100 million taxpayer dollars on such settlements.

The study, linked above, is worth reading to understand how difficult even attempting to quantify such a number can be. Cities track the data in widely disparate and haphazard ways. One of the takeaways from the author of the study is that state or federally mandated tracking and reporting would make the data much more meaningful.

I believe this is an issue that should get more attention. A typical law and order conservative may not care a great deal about misconduct by police, but they are much more likely to care if they realize that their tax bill is being directly negatively impacted by such misconduct. Like the absurd cost of mass incarceration, this is an area with the potential to unite people across the political spectrum to support reform, reform that is desperately needed.